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1969 Was a Watershed Year in Watches

The first automatic chronograph movement; the first quartz watch; men walking on the moon; and more.

chronograph watch with black subdials

So many significant world events and developments occurred in the legendary year 1969 that one can imagine Billy Joel writing a song that simply lists them — he could probably even dedicate a verse to watches. This was the year that a race between several major watch brands (Zenith, Seiko, and a consortium of Heuer, Breitling, Dubois Dépraz, and Hamilton-Buren) to be first to bring an automatic chronograph movement to market culminated in iconic timepieces that people can’t stop talking about even today.

Also significant for chronographs was the first human being stepping foot on the moon, accompanied by an Omega Speedmaster that would later become known as the “Moonwatch.” Finally, and forebodingly for the mechanical watch industry, Seiko sold the first-ever quartz watch, the inaugural event of what came to be known as “The Quartz Crisis.” Now, 50 years later, all these developments are still being felt in the watch world. Below, we examine some of the most significant watch developments from 1969 and their modern counterparts.

Zenith El Primero

El Primero means “the first,” of course, but people still argue and parse terms today about which watch company won the automatic chronograph race. More important is that all three competing parties presented groundbreaking products in the same year, making consumers the real winners.

Zenith did a couple things to stand apart from its competitors, however, by making a remarkably accurate movement that operated at the atypically high frequency of 5Hz at a time when 2.5Hz was common. Of the manufacturers that produced automatic chronographs in 1969, Zenith produces the most convincing modern link to that heritage — today, you can still buy Zenith El Primero watches containing what can be considered an evolution of the original El Primero Calibre 3019 movement of 1969.


Heuer Calibre 11

The Calibre 11 “Chrono-Matic” movement produced by a consortium of watch companies (Heuer, Breitling, Dubois Dépraz, and Hamilton-Buren) was produced in a number of variations, but it’s the “11” that receives most of the glory. This movement appeared in a number of watches from different brands but is arguably best known for powering the 1969 Heuer Monaco. Today, TAG Heuer produces a “Monaco Calibre 11” watch that is about as close to the original as one could hope for. Overall, however, the watch achieves a very similar effect, with a left-hand crown, right-hand pushers, and a similar dial layout — and from the wearer’s perspective, it does an admirable job of keeping the legend alive.


Seiko Calibre 6139

Seiko didn’t make a big fuss or even offer the Calibre 6139 outside of Japan at first, but it began selling its automatic chronograph months before the excited Swiss brands did. Seiko’s chronograph operated at 3Hz and measured up to 30 minutes via a sub-dial at 6 o’clock, resulting in a very different look from the typical chronograph layout we expect today with multiple sub-dials and pushers.

In a sense, this history and DNA is part of the Seiko brand in general, but today, they produce surprisingly few mechanical chronographs. As of 2019, modern automatic chronographs from Seiko are mostly limited to the 8R family movements, such as those found in just a couple of watches in the Presage line. Vintage models, on the other hand, tend to be reasonably priced and available.


Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch”

The story of the Omega Speedmaster, and the Moonwatch in particular, is well known to serious watch fans. Though there have been many, many (many) iterations of the Speedmaster released since its celebrated 1969 moon-landing moment, some more faithful to the original than others.

The 321 movement that went to the moon was quickly updated and replaced, but Omega has been delivering legitimate watchmaking continuity with the Speedmaster. In a very unusual move, however, Omega announced this year that it has reverse-engineered its own 321 movement to reproduce it as accurately as possible in a special workshop. We hope to see it at Baselworld 2019 in a special 50th-anniversary Moonwatch, but the current lineup of Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatches offers a lot of good options.


Seiko Quartz Astron

While all these exciting developments in centuries-old mechanical watch technology were taking place, one watch released in 1969 would make them all irrelevant. It was the Seiko Quartz Astron that used a battery as its power source instead of the mainspring that drives mechanical watches. It heralded doom for many watch companies and offered previously unknown accuracy and affordability in wristwatches. Of course, today’s heaps of mass-produced, cheap plastic watches are part of that larger legacy, but Seiko also produces incredibly refined, high-quality quartz movements in its Grand Seiko 9F series, for example.


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